Thursday, March 24, 2011

Backstabbin'

I just had a hissy fit on facebook but figure this is probably a better place for it.  A friend remarked that today was Lawrence Ferlinghetti's birthday, and then quoted him: "Don't patronize the chain bookstores. Every time I see some author scheduled to read and sign his books at a chain bookstore, I feel like telling him he's stabbing the independent bookstores in the back."

My response was as follows: "So, we are supposed to refuse what tiny, pathetic opportunities we have for publicizing our work, further restricting our already-meager options for finding new readers, to serve somebody else's anti-corporate agenda? As if anyone gives a rat's ass that a literary writer somewhere is taking a bold stance against some hairsplitting distinction that about nine people in the entire world even recognize. Ferlinghetti should try opening an independent bookstore in, say, Ohio or upstate New York, and see how much traction he gets. Personally, I feel stabbed in the back when I'm told how and where to sell my books by somebody I've never met."

Sorry, Corey, don't unfriend me.  But really: as a corollary to the last post, I personally decline to feel bad about failing to sell my own work according to some impossible left-coast standard of moral purity. And though I love my local independent, and support it with my dollars, rhetoric, and what little authorial clout I possess, the fact is that indies have been a niche business for a long time and are only going to get nichier.  People don't like them, they like Barnes & Noble.  Or ebooks, for chrissake, which are selling like mad, and this is for reading on a device aesthetically akin to a home perm kit from 1983.

Physical books and independent bookstores are a fetish.  I happen to embrace this fetish, personally, but I do not have the mental energy to proselytize about it, or to get all high and mighty about the method by which readers pay attention to what I do.  Frankly, this amounts to stabbing readers in the back.  "No--you're liking me wrong!" is the message Ferlinghetti is encouraging us to deliver to them.  Honestly, their only reasonable response would be to give up liking us at all.

8 comments:

5 Red Pandas said...

I had an epic argument with a writer friend of mine because he took Ferlinghetti's stance and painted me as a sell out because I didn't get upset when an author visiting the library told kids that she likes seeing her books in Barnes and Noble. I said that kids could relate to B&N and if she loves seeing her books there then good for her.

(And BTW, if anyone can tell me where I've hidden the riches from selling out, please remind me because I sure as hell can't!)

My stance is this: as a writer you don't have to work very hard not to be read, so it doesn't make sense to limit your audience in any way. Write the best book that you can, and accept as much help or as many readers and you can get.

That said, there's nothing wrong with championing an indie bookstore you like. Or using a link to the powell's instead of defaulting to amazon all the time.

jrlennon said...

As an inveterate Powell's-linker, I agree 100%!

You know, I love shopping at an indie, but my Grandma loves her Borders and my mom loves her Kindle, and who am I to tell them they're doin it rong? They are READING. BOOKS.

Pete said...

Search for "Lawrence Ferlinghetti" on Amazon, and you get 174 separate book results. If he feels so strongly about indies versus chains, why doesn't he prohibit his books from being sold on Amazon? Amazon is responsible for killing far more indie stores than either B&N or Borders. By allowing his books to be sold on Amazon (and B&N and Borders), isn't he himself stabbing indie bookstores in the back? He can't make the argument that, as a writer, his goal is to get his work into the hands of as many readers as possible regardless of medium, while also saying as a bookseller that writers should exclusively go indie.

As a reader, I prefer indies but have no ethical problem with shopping at the chains. And as an emerging writer, once I get a book published I'll be glad to appear wherever I'm welcomed, whether indie or chain. Beggars can't be choosers, and as a writer I'll always be a beggar.

Dan Cafaro said...

As much as I'm inclined to support an iconic beat poet's idealism, I have to object to Ferlinghetti's crotchety position as it does little for an author's visibility and platform to limit his/her venues of choice.

Most authors, sadly, do not have the luxury of boycotting the chains; the importance of reaching (or striving to reach) critical mass to build an audience base outweighs the indie-energized sermon on the mount, particularly when the mountain is often barren.

As a publisher, I too would like our books to help indie booksellers prosper, and I will do my best to partner with the stores who not only pay attention to small presses, but champion our collective existence ... but it would be a disservice to my authors for me to limit their market exposure to the book buying public and refuse to acknowledge the economic and cultural reality (and dominance) of B&N and Amazon.

Risk-taking entrepreneurs may be spearheading a fundamental rule change, but for now, the powerhouse conglomerates still rule the literary landscape and we small presses will benefit by smiling politely and playing in their space. For now.

"It's been a long, a long time coming but I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will."

jon said...

I've been thinking that rather than pitting indie bookstores against the giants, maybe people should throw some money to public libraries. Please don't murder me when I say this, but rather than collect 200 grand to support a failing local bookstore, that money donated to a public library would allow it to buy materials that would then be free to hundreds, thousands of people.

Russell said...

I second Jon. If not for my tiny local library (no Regenstein, but more than I could ever read in one lifetime), I'd suffer. Sure, if I ever again earn a dollar, I may buy a book (or donate to the library system), but that's not an option for all of us.

5 Red Pandas said...

Donations to libraries are great and necessary but they shouldn't have to be. As taxpayers we fund our public libraries, so while you're making your donations don't forget to remind your local politicians that the library is important to you so that libraries don't continue to take a hit every budget season. My point is that libraries shouldn't be charity cases- they (like all public schools, as well) should be well funded as a matter of course.

(For ex.: I shouldn't have to use grant money to buy basic library supplies like toner and paper! But that's what I do and it drives me crazy.)

Anonymous said...

"Try opening and independent bookstore in upstate New York. Or Ohio." I've lived much of my life in "flyover" regions like that, and I can tell you that if it wasn't for the chains, there would be no major bookstores there. In Las Vegas, NV,for example, before Borders came in the early 90s, if you looked up bookstores in the local directory you would see B. Dalton's in one of the malls, a couple of very small used paperback sellers, and a long list of "adult" bookstores(dildo shops).

Ferlinghetti runs a great shop, and I have been fortunate to have also lived in cities that had good indy book stores which, given the choice, I would much prefer to B&N. But most of us don't have that choice, and it's nothing short of elitist to insist that they be left in the lurch.